A discussion with agricultural legislative leaders

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak

I was privileged to be in Washington, DC last week for an agricultural conference featuring the leading players in passing a new farm bill. All spoke of harmony and a team approach to getting the bill through. After listening I have my reservations, but I did agree any further delay in a new bill could have negative impact on agriculture and more directly the farm. Below I have highlighted some of their comments.

Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)
“We are not going to do an extension, we will not kick the can down the road.” She believes the House and Senate versions are close and they can work it out. I asked her since they presented a bill previously that already made cuts, might they not come back to you and ask for further cuts? She avoided the answer, talking about the fiscal cliff and no one knows what those negotiations might bring. She said emphatically that direct payments would be gone (Sen. Lucas agreed with this). She said the major hold up is in the difference between the Senate bill and House bill around commodity title.

Representative Ag committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)
“I will not approve a Farm bill that does not include all agriculture.” This is in response to a version that leaves some commodity groups out of the bill language. He commented that the Senate version depends on just a revenue program; he believes the bill needs to include a price/loss coverage provision and give farmers a choice between the two. He said Representative Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) said it right when he said, “We have one chance to get this right.” As far as his thoughts on an extension, he is against it, but said a transition period may be needed in order to implement a new bill. He was questioned about the difference between an extension and transition.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
Vilsack called for “an adult conversation” with rural America. The Secretary called on all of agriculture to become more proactive in messaging and approach. He called for a new growth mindset by opening up to markets and promoting exports. Agricultural groups need to quit bickering between ourselves, we have a great story to tell and we have tremendous leverage. 
Without a change in tone and strategy rural America will continue to decline in political relevance. “Why no farm bill, yet?” Vilsack believes it goes beyond differences in policy. Rural America has a shrinking population; as a result it is becoming less and less relevant to the policy makers. Agricultural leaders better understand this and needs to come together to tell the positive story of what ag does for not only North America but also the world.

Other takeaways from Vilsack comments
• The Farm bill is attached to the fiscal cliff bill, won’t have one without the other.
• Renewable fuel standard is not dead.
• We need further research on double cropping and drought resistance.
• Study effects of climate change on ag.
• We need to do something about the declining opportunity in rural America. (17% today live in poverty)
• Need to invest in conservation and bring back recreation opportunities in rural areas.
• Need to create regional economies; community-by-community approach is not working.
• Need to expand exports.
• We are seeing more of a biology based economy; plants to make car bodies, hog manure being tested to pave highways, corn cob ingredients regenerated to make plastic bottles, and more.

Despite the talk of harmony and agreement, I think there are still major issues between the Senate and House to work out. The farm bill must fit within the fiscal cliff plan and therefore if they do not agree on a fiscal cliff plan, don’t hold your breath waiting for a farm bill. I do agree with the Secretary that ag needs to step up to the table to gain more respect in Washington. That starts with becoming more united in their communications, addressing adversary groups concerns and touting its importance on a global stage.

I want to acknowledge Farm Journal and Informa Economics for hosting this year’s Farm Journal Forum. As in the past it is a great day, with very timely information. I will post another entry commenting on other speakers and their view of global agriculture later this week.